PAX East is traditionally an expedition of spectacle, with so much enticing content to behold, it can sometimes be a little overwhelming Yet, with all of the competition for attention, the focal point for excitement on the show floor was the SuperGiant booth - and their Transistor demo. As I stood in line, conversing with show-goers who had played the game more than once by this point, I also got to rub elbows with some members of the development team. As my own excitement grew as we discussed the demo, the opportunity for an interview with Greg Kasavin quickly presented itself. He, thankfully, agreed.
Q: Approaching your booth at PAX East, I’d heard some talk of Transistor bearing a play style that resembled Bastion’s. After sitting down to actually play the game, I realized that the only likeness in combat between the two games were line of sight attacks. Most prominently the Breaker’s bow’s ability to hit multiple targets in a straight line. It would be a stretch to call the combat stylings in Transistor derivative of those instances; but is rather, honing that one facet of combat and exploring the strategic capabilities within. When defining how Transistor’s combat would play, what focuses shaped the systems at work?
A: We were interested in creating a deep-feeling, open-ended combat system in Transistor. We decided to continue exploring the action RPG genre with our second game but wanted to approach the core moment-to-moment action from a different angle, tapping into some of the pleasures of classic turn-based strategy games or tactical RPGs, within the context of an action RPG's fast action and simple mechanics. We wanted to see if we could make a combat system with a deliberate and dramatic pace that players had some control over, where the dynamics of the fight could change in surprising ways from moment to moment.
Q: So much of Bastion’s tone was conveyed through the bombastic nature of the combat. The reliance on players making instinctual, characteristic responses to the once-refined obstacles the world presented added much color to the world’s “once lived in” feeling. This allowed Bastion to house a sort of back-to-nature tone, conveyed in so many aspects of the game; but reinforced, and cultivated within the combat itself. Transistor’s combat does much to the same end, judging from the demo at PAX. The strategic nature inherent to your combat style reinforces the polished, systematic tone of the world. How does the Super Giant narrative design process work, exactly? Non-verbal story telling typically lands simply in the design of the world, not so much in mechanics themselves. How conscious were you of how each piece would fit together?
A: One of the main goals of our design process is to make a game that feels complete, where all the pieces fit together in a harmonious way and nothing feels vestigial. To that end, the fiction and narrative often work as a connective tissue between different design elements and experiential goals. That said, our narrative design process is fairly straightforward. We don't design our games on paper but build them as we go. Early on we develop a sense of the theme and tone we want to explore, then we build towards them. We outline the game's main story at around the time we develop a clear understanding of the play experience, but we don't write the story content itself until we're down to building the levels. It's very tactical, which I think allows us to pace the experience better than we could if we planned everything out ahead of time.
Q: Seeing a developer presenting work with a definitive style is something the industry is seeing less and less of. That said, the moment a player lays eyes on Transistor, it is readily apparent that SuperGiant made the game. A great part of this is attributed to the visual styling of the world. While the tone and structure between the two pieces of work are quite independent of each other, the attention to detail filling the realms behind play tell origin. Keeping in line with my string of narrative design questions; how much weight is placed on deciding what color palate to operate under - such as the vibrant greens and reds of the urban background in Transistor - best translates the atmosphere you’re seeking to build?
A: On Transistor we spent a good amount of time in pre-production, developing the look and feel of the world and the characters, all in service of the particular tone we're aiming to achieve with the game. Jen Zee our art director uses color and many other visual art techniques in a deliberate way, in order to achieve these goals, and above all to create a distinct and interesting-looking sense of place. It's a collaborative process -- she likes to work from a deep understanding of the fiction and thematic core of the experience, though at the same time as I write the material I like to leave it as open as possible to her own interpretation, and it must be left open anyway for the sake of the game design. So there's a balancing act there, where I aim to write the world with as much detail as possible while at the same time leaving lots of room for Jen and everyone on team to imagine where else it could go. In turn, this tends to inspire new ideas that get folded back into the fiction, and so on and so forth, until the result is something that's reflective of everyone on the team.
Q: In relation with the previous questions, SuperGiant has fast become a key example for non verbal story telling; while solidly demonstrating the power of narration. What sort of story boarding process does your team undergo to ensure the smooth cooperation between each story telling venue in a scene?
A: We're a small team so we don't do much in the way of storyboarding. We talk through things and spell things out, but since Jen is going to be the one creating the artwork, she tends not to have to storyboard things ahead of time. As for our level design process, there's a lot of iteration that goes in but again, we tend not to meticulously plan our layouts ahead of time because we know they're going to change and evolve no matter what. We try to get to something playable as quickly as possible and go from there.
Q: Playing the demo at PAX East, Transistor presented a world that felt so fully realized and - most importantly - lived in. Now that i’ve asked so much of your time regarding your narrative design, how does it all fit together? Is the world of Transistor independent of the city of Caelondia, or are they both parts of a greater whole? Where does this world come from?
A: We intend for Transistor to have its own distinct identity as a game. That means its world has to stand alone, and not contain immersion-breaking references to things outside of its world. Other than that, I don't want to say too much about Transistor's world at this point, since discovering the world for yourself ought to be part of what's interesting about the game. With Bastion we were very cautious not to say too much about the world or the story ahead of time. At events like PAX, we let people play the first 20 minutes, which we hoped gave a good impression of the game -- but we didn't reveal anything beyond that while the game was in development.
Q: Bastion housed a menagerie of implied themes and motifs: ranging from centralized pillars such as hope and self sacrifice; but, reinforcing those through the constant reminder that you sometimes have to fall before you understand the next step. So often, something much larger than the game is being communicated to players. What were some of the driving elements behind Bastion’s theme, those underlying messages for players. Likewise, what led to your direction this time around?
A: I really don't like to spell it out so as not to undermine players' personal interpretations of Bastion's theme, though from my point of view there was a simple, central narrative theme at work there. We of course buried this theme rather deep inside a colorful and action-packed game, as it's important to us that our games not feel preachy or didactic, just that they feel unified, interesting, and hopefully memorable. As for Transistor, part of the reason we wanted to create a whole new world for this game was we felt that the kind of thematic material we wanted to explore this time around, as well as the gameplay direction we wanted to push in, would make more sense in a different setting.
Q: The poor representation and handling of female characters in this industry has been placed under magnified spotlight, these past few months especially. With a dearth of believably - or, in far too many a case, respectfully - presented female protagonists heading up household adventures, it would be all too easy to either shy away or simply placate. Yet, with the unveiling of Transistor, you unveiled the equally enticing Red; and based on the empowered surge surrounding her appearance, I’m not the only one impressed. Red’s character, based on the demo, feels so wholly realized - full of fears, strengths, shortcomings, regrets and desires - without uttering a single word. I’ve been told before that we don’t find the heroes to our story, but that they come to us. How did Red come to you?
A: The idea for a character like Red was one of the earliest ideas on the project that ended up sticking. We really liked the idea of a relationship between a pair of characters, one with no voice and the other reduced to only a voice. Although Red appears very different from Bastion's Kid, they share a similar underlying design goal in that they're reflections of the worlds they come from. I'm very happy that Red has created such a strong first impression in players thus far, and we will do everything we can to make sure her story lives up to the promise they've seen. That means making sure her story and the player's own story through the game become very much aligned.
With such great insight, I'd like to thank Greg for this interview. Transistor is currently aimed for an early 2014 release, and I - for one - am excited.
This piece was originally featured on Darkstation, published on May 28, 2013 during my time as a writer there.